All e-mails are made up of the message header and the message body. The message header gives the basic properties or characteristics of the e-mail contained in different header fields. These header fields are displayed in the inbox and at the top of the message when opened. The two most important header fields are the ‘From Address’ and the ‘Subject Line’. These are most important, since these will determine whether the recipient decides to open the e-mail.
We begin our detailed exploration of best practice for e-mail design by looking at the information in the e-mail headers. This includes the basic attributes of the e-mail which are displayed in the inbox, including From, To, subject line and date/time.
First impressions: From
Many concentrate on the subject line, but you should not neglect ‘From’, which is an indication of the sender. As the recipients scan through their inbox, reading from left to right, their eyes will alight on ‘From’ before the subject line. In these days of SPAM, the From line should reassure the recipient that they know this person or company. They will be asking themselves whether they know the sender. If they do not they may delete the message straight away. For this reason it is often best that the company name is included in the ‘From’ address.
If the From address contains an ‘@’ symbol, the recipient will mainly be looking at what is after the @ symbol. However, some companies also make use of the part of the address before the @ symbol.
Gaining attention: the subject line
The importance of the subject line is self-evident. Think about what we are trying to achieve. For many years those that have developed adverts and direct mail have used the AIDA framework as they try to achieve Attention, Interest, Desire and Action. Where do you think the e-mail subject line fits in here? Certainly we are trying to attract attention, since the e-mail is competing for attention with many other e-mails. Furthermore, we have to stimulate interest and desire in order for the recipient to open the e-mail. The initial action is opening the e-mail, but through the subject line we are conditioning the recipient to take the ultimate action of clicking on a link. Remember that the first two or three words of the subject line are most important as a user scans through the inbox. Also remember that you have a limited number of characters to get your message across. The subject line should be designed for 30 characters (6 or 7 words), or at least you should be aware that anything beyond these characters can be deleted.
Email Style & Personality
Since messages are likely to be interpreted literally; you should keep them straight, that is, to adopt a professional tone. E-mail is an informal medium, which lies somewhere between informal phone or face-to-face conversation and formal written communications. However, it is still a written medium and its informality is often reserved for well-known friends and colleagues. So ‘instant familiarity’ which involves adopting a too casual tone with someone you do not know will be inappropriate for many recipients. You have to earn informality.
Email Body Header
The body of the e-mail typically contains the following elements, many of which are shared with direct mail pieces:
Body headers (headlines)
Distinct from the message header described above, this is the first part of an e-mail body. Headers in the body are almost exclusively used in HTML e-mails since they cannot really fulfil the same function in text e-mails. The function of headers is partly to reassure, partly to inform and partly to offer more. To achieve this, the header is made up of different parts. Part of it is branding in the form of logo and name which will reassure the recipient if it is a well-known brand or credible organization. The header can also give more information about what is on offer through a title to reinforce what is in the subject line. Finally, parts of the header can be clickable. For example, in a newsletter, a special offer can be highlighted by a banner advert in the header.
The initial greeting to the recipient is not the most important part of the e-mail in determining response rates, but it is one of the first things that will form an impression on the reader. It can set the tone of the e-mail as formal or fun. An appropriate salutation will vary according to the individual’s preferences, but we can generalize that an older audience would prefer the more formal approach.
Lead copy or introduction
After the header and salutation, you probably will not have much space left above the ‘fold’, the space for opening copy before the reader needs to scroll down (if they bother). So, think a maximum of two or three snappy sentences for the lead. In this space we need to develop the initial interest to encourage the user to scroll down to find more and click that call-to-action. Better still, if you can manage it, put the call-to-action ‘above the fold’, in or immediately below the lead. This way, if the prospect has decided to act, you will not delay them.
The main copy is for those readers who want to know more: those who have not lost interest and those who have not already clicked the initial call-to-action. So, the person who gets this far is likely to want detail and reassurance. Since we have a fair amount of detail here, this is often the place to use bullets with bold headings so that the detail can also be taken in by readers who are scanning. So, the main copy should include: A detailed description of the offer features. If the offer is for a holiday, what specifically is on offer? If the offer is for a seminar, what are the topics, what is the track-record of the speakers?
The main aim of the final part of the copy should be to achieve action. So, a link to execute the action should always be included with the close. The reader will often have had to scroll down to get this far, and it may be worthwhile briefly repeating what has been said to date, in particular the offer.
This is simply an instruction. It should be reasonably prominent and straightforward if you believe in permission marketing. The instruction will usually take the form of clicking on a link to unsubscribe.
Since it is undesirable to have a full privacy statement in the e-mail body, this is usually a link back to the privacy statement on the web site. Related to privacy statement is a ‘statement of origination’ which explains who has sent the e-mail and why.
What not to include
Here brevity is key, so what do you not include? You should focus copy on what the ‘readers want to know, need to know or both’. It is suggested that you put yourself in the readers’ shoes and focus on answering their questions, rather than expounding on details of the company and its achievements that you are proud of. So, ask whether the reader will be influenced by copy; if not, leave it out.
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